Go ahead: joke about killing Kim Jong-un all you want

"The Interview" posterIf you follow the news, you’re probably at least dimly aware about the brouhaha surrounding the new movie by Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg and Dan Sterling, The Interview, whose comedic plot revolves around two American reporters who are asked by the CIA to use a rare interview opportunity with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un to assassinate the reclusive tyrant. The North Korean government, unsurprisingly, is not pleased with this storyline, and hackers who may or may not have ties to North Korea have now managed to both capture and release an absolutely mind-blowing amount of Sony’s internal data and frighten Sony into cancelling The Interview‘s release in American theaters.

This is an ongoing story, so I’m sure there will be further developments to come. However, I’m writing this not to comment on the overall story itself, but on one type of reaction to it that I’ve been seeing pop up periodically in my various social feeds. That reaction is to blame Rogen and his collaborators for having written a story that was too provocative towards North Korea.

These arguments generally take one of two forms:

  • Political: “You may not like Kim, but he’s the leader of a country, and it’s not right to joke about killing any country’s leaders.”
  • Humanitarian: “You may not like Kim, but he’s a human being just like you, and it’s not right to joke about killing any human being.”

With all due respect to people making either of these arguments, in the immortal words of Jules Winnfield, “allow me to retort.”

My retort: fuck that noise. Seriously. As far as I’m concerned, if you want to joke about killing Kim Jong-un, you should feel free to knock yourself out.

First, a tangential point: it’s important to note that The Interview is not a movie about just anyone trying to assassinate Kim Jong-un; it’s a movie about the CIA trying to assassinate Kim Jong-un. And the CIA has a long and sordid history of trying to assassinate foreign leaders it didn’t approve of. Sometimes it even tried multiple times — Fidel Castro alone, for instance, was on the receiving end of between 8 and 600+ CIA assassination attempts. (None of which succeeded, obviously.) And many of the schemes the CIA tried in real life were at least as harebrained as the one in The Interview, centering around such tactics as poisoning his cigars or planting a depilatory agent in his shoes to make his hair fall out. So the premise of The Interview can be read to be as critical of America’s addiction to covert assassination as a tool of policy — and its persistent weakness for using that tool in as ridiculous a way as can be imagined — as of Kim’s regime.

But let’s put that aside for a moment and talk about the main point the critics are making, which is that it’s somehow illegitimate to make jokes about assassination. In most cases, I would agree with that argument. But in the case of Kim it falls short, because the North Korean regime is one of the most monstrous in modern history. The regime that Kim presides over has brought its people nothing but isolation and starvation for more than sixty years now.

To get your arms around the scope of the regime’s crimes, you have to start with Kim’s grandfather, the founder of the modern North Korean state:  Kim Il-sung. His appetite for power led him, to the horror of his Soviet and Chinese sponsors, to launch an invasion of South Korea that eventually widened into the Korean War — a conflict that would take the lives of more than two million Koreans on both sides, along with hundreds of thousands of Chinese and tens of thousands of Americans. And his war, whose declared aim was to unify the two Koreas under Northern rule, accomplished nothing; three years of bloody fighting left the boundaries of the two Koreas only slightly changed.

Beyond the war, Kim Il-sung also built the garrison state that his son and grandson would eventually inherit. His philosophy of Juche (“self-reliance”) wrecked North Korea’s economy and turned it into the impoverished state it is today. He also established the hard-line approach taken to dealing with internal dissent that would eventually flower into one of history’s most brutal networks of political prisons. Prisoners in these gulags are worked as slaves, with only minuscule food rations and in harsh conditions. Thanks to the government’s policy of “guilt by association,” criticizing the government or attempting to flee the country will not only land you in one of these prisons, but your entire family as well. It is estimated that as many as 200,000 people are detained in these prisons today.

Kim Il-sung’s son and successor, Kim Jong-il, took this horror show of a government and managed to make it even worse. In the first years of his rule, he presided over a disastrous famine. Hunger and malnutrition became so widespread that rumors of cannibalism swept the country. Nobody knows exactly how many North Koreans died during that period, but estimates range from the high hundred thousands up to as many as three million, in a country whose total population at the time was just 22 million.

The United Nations estimates that Kim Jong-il could have fed his people by importing between $100 and $200 million worth of food. The regime was unable to find the money to accomplish that. But at the same time, while its people starved, it managed to find as much as $900 million to build a massive mausoleum for its departed “Great Leader,” Kim Il-sung.

The impact of the great famine led to Kim Jong-il’s personal twist on the state’s Juche ideology: the policy of songun, or “military first.” Under this policy, the North Korean military has unquestioned first call on any of the country’s scarce resources, including food. In a country that faces no real external military threat — neither South Korea nor the United States has any policy aiming at military conquest of the North, Japan’s days of conquest are long behind it, and North Korea receives protection from the powerful and nuclear-armed Chinese — the idea of starving the country to feed the army is beyond obscene. But in North Korea, that idea is official state policy. (In a state where the army is the only power center beyond the Kim family that is allowed to exist, that was also probably inevitable.)

The current ruler of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, has done nothing to improve the conditions his poor subjects have suffered under for all these decades. Juche and songun are still in force, the economy is still a shambles, the gulags are still full. His primary accomplishments since taking power upon the death of his father in 2012 have been murdering most of his father’s closest advisors, rattling his rusty saber at the United States, and bumping the amount of money the government spends buying him cognac and cars to nearly $650 million per year.

To sum up: Kim Jong-un is a ruler who lives in unimaginable luxury while his people, even in good years, struggle to eke out a basic living. He has taken the crimes of his father and grandfather and adopted them as his own, with no indication of a desire to break with those policies or even of him viewing those crimes with regret. He is the fruit of a poisonous tree.

(And if your concern is that it’s somehow out of bounds to joke about killing a foreign leader, all I can say is: have you ever seen North Korean propaganda? It’s full of imagery about how Americans are evil imperialists who need to be fought and killed. They even make cartoons with that message to make sure it’s not lost on the young ‘uns. And the North hasn’t stopped at just words, either — on at least three occasions, they have actively attempted to assassinate the leader of South Korea.)

I’m sitting here trying to come up with a single good thing any of the Kims have done for North Korea, and I’m coming up completely empty. Which is kind of amazing, when you think about it. I mean, I think we can all agree that Adolf Hitler was a pretty evil dude, but he at least managed to build his people some decent highways. Josef Stalin was another monster, but he at least managed to turn the backward, agrarian Soviet economy into a modern industrial one. Nearly every horrifying tyrant in history has managed to do something that can be put on the plus side of his historical ledger. But all the Kims have brought their people in the decades of their rule is death. Death in a pointless war, death in a needless famine, death in front of a firing squad, death working in a remote, frozen gulag while dressed in rags. Just death. Only death.

So yeah, fuck Kim Jong-un. Joke about his death all you want. He’s earned it.